The Amateur’s Guide to Professional DJing
Table of Contents
Becoming a Serious DJ
Honing Your Craft
Recording Your Mix
Building Your Following
This is not a manual on how to DJ.
This is for the DJ who already has some foundational skills in mixing and is ready to take their craft to the next level: getting paid.
Most people completely misinterpret the word ‘amateur’. The word comes from the Latin word ‘amare’, which means: to love. An amateur is someone who loves that thing that they do. ‘Professional’ means nothing more than someone who does something for a living. When these two mindsets collide, passion is born. A burning passion is the key to great success. It’s that burning success that makes you stand out from the crowd of DJs who are desperate to make a dime, it’s what helps you find your unique sound. It’s what helps you get noticed.
If you are a DJ and you would like to make a living of DJing, there are pitfalls that you need to avoid if you want to fast-track your career. Most of those pitfalls come in the form of not taking the right steps. This book is your resource for knowing which steps to take and learning how to take them. Think of it as a checklist. Without taking each step seriously, you’re going to seriously hold yourself back. I personally have made all of these mistakes myself. Learn from my mistakes and you may be saving yourself upwards of ten years of wasted time.
So, please allow me to welcome you to this amazing world of DJing. I hope that you’ll find this book useful to your endeavors, and that you’ll reach the success levels that you’ve dreamt of. They’re within your grasp. It’s just a matter of what steps you take to get there. This is a guide that will require you to take action. So buckle up, get ready, and let’s make some music.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR My name is Julian Wolters. I am from the Netherlands and I have loved dance music ever since I can remember. I grew up with house & dance. In 2002, my obsession with Trance, House and Hardstyle music began. I played the sensation 2002 megamix over and over. From there, I started to experiment with making my own beats. In 2004, I started DJing. At that time, I was 15 years old and already completely crazy with electronic dance music.
There were a lot of weekends when I would build insane DJ setups with friends for some DJ-battles. Eventually, we noticed that we were actually becoming quite good at what we were doing, so a dream of playing for crowds was born. Less than a year went by and I had become a resident DJ in a local club. From there, my career only grew, and I began to wonder how I could help those with a similar passion get to where I was. As such, in 2014 I started a business called ‘Dutch DJ World’, a school for DJs and producers. Since then, I have showed more than 700 people the magic of DJing. Later, DDW evolved in a platform that provided everything DJs and producers of all levels of professionalism could need. DDW is now a school, a bookings-agency, an equipment rental company, a record label, a ghost-producer agency, an event organizer, a webs hop, and most importantly: a community.
BECOMING A SERIOUS DJ
Since this book is geared towards those who already have DJing skills, chances are you’ve already got the prerequisites to move into taking your skills a little more seriously.
But just in case you don’t, let’s have a quick refresher.
Becoming a DJ involves some basic but essential steps. You’ll need to learn what it is that constitutes being a DJ. What do they do, and how do they do it? You’ll need to identify what kind of DJing you want to do. Is there a particular genre you’re partial to? You’ll need to learn how to use the required hardware, and eventually you’ll need to invest in your very own.
The path to becoming a skilled DJ doesn’t happen in the snap of a finger. Like with anything else, you’ll need to put in a lot of hours to learn the basics of the software and hardware, and even more time to be able to master it. It’ll also take a while before you develop your own sound. But one of the hardest parts of becoming a successful DJ is building the confidence that you need to mix in front of people – especially large crowds. Even if you learned your equipment and developed a killer sound overnight, confidence will always hold you back. Allow yourself the time you need. Practice regularly. And focus on confidence. In time, it’ll come.
The first thing you have to know once you have the basics of being a DJ down is what kind of DJ you want to be.
- A Club DJ
Club DJs need to be able to read their audience so that they can keep people dancing even into the wee hours of the night. Clubs typically look for a DJ that already fits their style and genre preference, so you have two options here. You can be versatile and secure more gigs, or you can specialize and likely get fewer (but likely better paying and a better fan base) gigs. Club DJs have to master long transitions and know how to choose the right mixes for what the room needs.
- A Turntablist
Turntablists get where they are mostly because of who they are. They’re performers first and DJs second. They have a strong reputation, a repertoire of tricks, great transitions, and incredible skills. The key here is gathering up a fan base and having a personality to show through your talents. These people go places just to see you preform.
- A Mobile DJ
Mobile DJs have a lot on their plate and work more with people than others. They’re often entrepreneurs and run their own business. As such, they take on gigs like weddings, proms, and other similar events. They focus mainly on hit music and taking requests. Mobile DJs need to be comfortable with working with people, having a lot on their plate (like setting up equipment and taking it down), making announcements and being personable on the microphone, keeping the crowd dancing or scaling it back during lower energy times, and running their own business. Mobile DJing requires a pretty hefty up-front investment.
- A Radio DJ
Radio DJs are the original DJs. They showcase their personality, announce local news and events, curate music, and switch music. A lot of the best radio DJs have forgone the radio itself for more creative freedom in the podcast world.
Of course, there are more. But these four represent the four basic types of DJing that you’re likely to encounter. Which one fits you best? Which one gets you excited? Answering questions like these will help you focus in on where you want to go and what you need to do to get there. There are huge variations in these types of DJing, so use your senses to make adjustments to the steps where it makes sense. This book will mostly be relevant to those with the club DJ and turntablist goals, but the chapters that follow are helpful for any kind of DJ.
If you’re having trouble deciding which fits you best, that’s okay. You don’t need to decide now. But some things to consider when trying to make that decision is what your reason for DJing is in the first place. Is it to make money? Is it to have a good time and help others have a good time too? Is it to find fame and popularity? Is it for a pure love of music and mixing? Any reason is valid, but I urge you to follow your passion first and foremost. If you love what you do, you’ll be happy to have whatever comes along with it. If you’re doing something solely for fame and fortune, it’s going to be hard to keep yourself motivated when those things don’t come easily.
HONING YOUR CRAFT
Knowing how to use your software and hardware isn’t enough. You need to master it.
Software is typically the first thing new DJs look at it. It’s cheap to get into, doesn’t require any physical space, and is widely available. It’s a great place to start, as well, because you can familiarize yourself with different techniques and skills before even touching any hardware.
Here are three digital DJ platforms that are popular in the industry currently:
- Virtual DJ: Virtual DJ is the most downloaded DJ software in the world. It’s free to use for non-commercial purposes, has a massive community of users, and is constantly being updated to conform to the latest tech in the DJ world. It’s a great starting point.
- Serato DJ Pro: The Serato Pro software comes with a practice mode that doesn’t require any hardware at all, but still teaches you technique and basic skills that you’ll need to use the hardware. It’s widely popular for this reason and is fairly newbie friendly.
- Rekordbox by Pioneer: Rekordbox is more for managing your music library than to simulate DJing hardware or teach. It must be connected to compatible hardware to use, but it allows you to play from your library directly or export to a USB. It’s a super handy tool and well-loved in the industry for that reason.
To choose which software is best for you, I recommend reading about each respective software there is on their site and watching demos online (YouTube is crawling with them). Ultimately, it comes down to personal preference, but that choice should be an educated choice.
Once you’re equipped with some basic equipment, you need to focus on honing your skills. DJs need to be proficient at a number of skills including: beatmatching, phrasing, gain control, and equalizing. Don’t worry. We’ll go over those terms.
What is Beatmatching?
Beatmatching is exactly what it sounds like. It’s matching the beats of two different tracks so that they play at the same tempo (speed) and phase (beats hit at the same time). If you can’t beatmatch, what you’re playing will sound like a hot mess. Beatmatching ensures that songs are transitioning smoothly without compromising listening quality.
To beatmatch effectively, you need to be proficient with a pitch fader, and hopefully all of the following: jog wheel, pitch-bend button, or record manipulation. Even if you’re not, technology these days picks up the slack if your skills are lacking. Still yet, the best DJs are the ones that know what they’re doing. So even if your hardware and software have sync function built right in, you should still learn how to beatmatch manually.
When you have the skills to beatmatch manually, you can mix on any piece of equipment, even turntables. You aren’t reliant on technology if you know how to manually use your equipment.
However, keep in mind that the best piece of equipment a DJ can have is a good ear. Your ear is there to tell you if you’re beatmatching properly. It’ll sound busy and erratic if you’re not. Hone your ear by listening to renowned DJs in person and online. You’ll quickly learn to distinguish between right and wrong beatmatching.
What is Phrasing?
Phrasing shouldn’t be a new term to you if you’ve been in the music world for some time. Phrasing is used in all instrument playing, and it refers to how songs are timed. For example, most DJd music is played in 4/4 time, meaning that there are four beats per measure. What this means for you is that you’ll have to learn how to count your beats so that your tracks keep time with each other. If you can count to four, you’re good.
What is Gain Control?
Gain control refers to volume. DJ equipment has numerous options for volume adjustment so that you can adjust various levels individually. Every channel has its own gain knob and line fader, both manipulate the overall volume that comes out of your main output. The crossfader blends (or fades) your various channels together.
Each piece of equipment has its own recommended levels. You should be familiar with these, so you don’t end up with any blow outs or unsavory noise. In general, volume should be boosted from the amp or speakers and shouldn’t be pushed into the red on your software or hardware.
What is Equalizing?
Equalizing is done by manipulating track frequencies so that when you blend another track in, it sounds seamless. Your genre will affect how much of a certain frequency you here, but for the sake of teaching let’s use dance music as an example. Dance music is consumed mostly by lower frequencies, known as bass. If you mix two similar frequencies together, the output is going to be overwhelming. Think of layering one kick drum over another. The result is going to be extremely loud. By equalizing, you ensure that you’re combining complimentary frequencies.
How do you do this? By mixing bands. Most DJ mixers have three or four band EQ. You’ll see it labeled typically as “low, medium, high”, or sometimes there are stops between that like low-mid and mid-high. Or, like in cars, you may even see them labeled as bass, treble, and mid.
Equalizing skills give way to smooth, polished sounding mixes. It’s one of the major reasons why hardware is great for DJing. You need that control to get a good control over equalizing.
When honing your skills, it’s strongly recommended that you do so on the equipment that you’ll take with you as you forge on into your career as a DJ. As such, it’s important to decide which kind of hardware setup you should use. Here are some to consider:
- DJ Controller
DJ controller setups give you a lot of control over your software without requiring you to shell out a bunch of cash. These modern systems have a lot of options built right in, so much so that you won’t really need anything other than a laptop to mix (and even record) any kind of music you need. Price varies greatly based on brand and features, so you have your research cut out for you here. But all in all, DJ controller setups are super popular because of the control, customizability, and cost-effective options they provide.
- Pioneer CDJ Nexus
If you’re going to DJ at various clubs, especially smaller clubs, they’ll likely have a Pioneer CDJ Nexus setup there for you to use. They’re pretty much the industry standard for large and smaller venues. They’re expensive but don’t require a laptop and have a fantastic capacity for producing amazing music. Most DJs you’ll meet will be proficient in the Pioneer CDJ Nexus (and as such, a DJM mixer), so you should absolutely learn to use this setup in addition to another that you may choose freely based on your needs and personal preference.
Vinyl isn’t dead. Records provide that classic sound that requires sharp skills and great taste that people love to hear. Plus, it’s impressive to be able to manipulate vinyl turntable setups and crowds won’t be able to look away. There’s something really rewarding about being able to go back to the basics of physical mixing and still be a master. Many DJs, old and young, still love to go back to vinyl setups and have fun. Some even consider the ability to mix on vinyl the divider between a “real DJ” and wannabees. Whether that’s true or not, vinyl mixing is its own skill and isn’t often done on the commercial level in big venues. Even if you prefer to go this route, it’s still recommended that you learn other setups because most venues aren’t going to have turntable equipment ready for you.
- DVS & HID
While vinyl record mixing is great, you can be pretty limited in your functions and options. The addition of software to DJing provides a number of options that earlier forms of DJ equipment didn’t afford DJs. You can master perfect loops and amazing recordings from having good software skills, and you’ll always have a wealth of music at your fingertips to bring with you effortlessly. For those reasons, DVS is widely known as the do-it-all setup and is well-loved. DVS gives you the pleasure of physical manipulation of music without the restriction of a vinyl collection.
The Serato DVS system is an example of this that actually still uses a vinyl record. The difference is that this particular vinyl record is able to communicate with your software, so it can play digital files but still allows for physical control over the table itself. It’s the best of all worlds in the DJ industry and a popular choice for those who want the feel of vinyl without sacrificing the modern options and features available.
RECORDING YOUR MIX
You have your skills honed, now what? You should record it! Recording yourself gives you numerous perks that you may not have considered. The most obvious is that you’ll be able to share your skills with others. Beyond that, recording yourself is the best way to critique yourself and get critique from others. At a certain point, hearing honest criticism is the only way (and best way) to improve. Don’t ever take it personally. Think of it as a gift, a gift that helps you become the best DJ you can be.
Most DJ setups make recording easy. If you can use software in your setup, chances are you have a recording option that is easily accessible. If not, you’ll have to get a bit more equipment and use a few more steps. Don’t let this deter you. Recording yourself is essential and you’ll be glad you put in the extra effort.
If you aren’t using software, you’ll need an external recorder. One example is the Zoom ZH1. Connect the external recorder to your mixer with an RCA cable. It’s important that you record directly from your output ports, otherwise you’re going to get interference and distorted, muddy sounds.
Aside from an external recorder, you can also use a laptop or computer. You just need to have a software that has studio options such as Audacity. No matter which recording option you use, the point is the same: you need to record yourself.
Once you’re ready to get recording and have your method set up, there are a few things you should keep in mind. First of all, you need to remember that recording yourself is a different beast than playing in front of people live. As such, the skills needed are a bit different. Still, you should try to keep a concept in your mix. Keep it simple. What story do you want to tell, and how are you going to tell it? Some pre-planning is in order here. You don’t want to just keep playing your most exciting tracks. You need to have your ups and downs, your high energy and your low energy, just like a story. Otherwise, you’re going to either give people a headache or you’ll bore them to death. In the end, you can do whatever you want. But for best results, I highly recommend going with the story idea and keeping your tracks paced and balanced to create a cohesive set that keeps people interested and excited for what you have next.
It may also help your confidence and the quality of the mix you put out to pretend that you are, in fact, in front of a live audience. This will help you get the best out of your set without the risk of making a massive mistake in front of a big crowd. Think of it as a practice run!
Use your recording time as a chance to play with new settings and experiment. This is how you’ll find your own sound, how you’ll find what works, and how you’ll find what to do and what not to do. It’s okay to make mistakes here because you can always wipe the recording and try again.
Once you’ve finished, you can send it off to some trusted friends to critique. However, if you’re critiquing it yourself, I recommend you wait a few days before listening to it. When you come off the high of recording a fresh mix, you’re not going to be as objective as you would be if you sat on it for a few days and then gave it a listen. You’ll be more honest with yourself after a few days. That honesty is what will benefit you the most as an artist. You may find that things you were hung up on weren’t really such a big deal, or you may find that things you thought were bulletproof are sounding a bit weak. Whatever you find, it’s good news because it means you can act on it. Remember: don’t take critique personal. It’s a chance to improve. You should be grateful for chances to improve and become a better DJ.
When you feel you’re ready, you can share your recordings on a wider scale. You can use sites like MixCloud, SoundCloud, and YouTube and share your mixes on social media. Uploading is great to start building a fan-base, and to get people hyped about your work. It’s essential for starting to build your reputation as well.
I recommend that you use caution in where you upload. MixCloud is one of the most popular choices because there’s no risk of having your mix taken down for copyright. YouTube, for example, has an automated copyright takedown system where if it detects copyright usage it’ll remove that upload from the system and give you a strike. Of course, this is really tough to navigate as a DJ – especially if you’re mixing top tracks. MixCloud doesn’t do that, and it’s free to use.
Once you’re ready to upload, I also recommend taking a few extra steps to help your work reach maximum visibility. You should do things like research tags, create a catchy name for yourself, name your track, and upload some artwork to go along with your mix. It should be relevant or thematic. If you’re not crafty yourself, there are sites where you can commission artwork from artists like Fiverr or even Reddit.
Be warned that you likely will have to confront the reality of people not liking your mix. If it’s from a trusted friend, listen to what they have to say and try to improve from it. If it’s from a random person on the internet, just forget it and keep doing what you’re doing. Even top artists and DJs get thousands of negative comments and dislikes on their YouTube videos. Do they stop making music because of it? Of course not. And neither should you. Never take it personally.
BUILDING YOUR FOLLOWING
Uploading your recordings is only step one towards building a following. Building a following is important because it gives you visibility. When a club wants to hire you for a gig, they’re more likely to take an interest if they know that you have 50,000 Instagram followers. For places like that, they have extra incentive to hire a DJ because the DJ preforming there will increase their own visibility. Make sure to give your clubs and venues a shout out on social media. Your fans will be able to come see you and your venues and clubs will be grateful for it!
But Julian, HOW do I get those 50,000 followers?
Yeah, that’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? Everyone wants more followers, more attention, more visibility. But getting there is tricky. If you try too hard and take the wrong steps, you can catch yourself negative attention or even bans. If you don’t try enough or do the right things, you won’t gain any traction. It’s tough out there, but it has to be. Everyone is trying to up their following. Not everybody can be successful.
Still, there are things you can do. For example, on Instagram the best thing you can do for yourself is research what hashtags you should be using that are the most relevant to you and will connect you with people that are likely to be interested in what you have to offer. Beyond that, your social media profiles should be thorough. You should post regularly on sites like Instagram and Facebook and have a clever (but informative) bio on each. But posting regularly is a surefire way to make sure your work gets noticed at all.
Keep in mind that you’re not doing this just for popularity on social media. You have to maintain a balance between sharing your personal life (however much you’re comfortable with) and keeping people up to date on what you’re working on. Work should always come before trying to build a following. But still, regularly share links and clips from your most recent uploads and keep making new recordings to share. People will notice. Just give it time.
The bottom line is that your social media is there to reflect who you are as a DJ. If you’re mysterious and work-focused, you probably shouldn’t post pictures of your breakfast or share a lot of selfies. Keep your posts consistent with who you are and how you want to be perceived by fans and followers as an artist. Also, troll that fine line between posting enough and posting too much. You should post once or twice a day at most, and 3 times a week at least. Keep a variety as well. Share your music, yes. But also share other things like fan art, relevant art, music that inspires you, and other posts to keep a nice variety going on your pages.
Finally, follow other artists. Do you want other artists to care about you? Of course! So, you should extend that same courtesy to them. Listen to other up-and-coming DJs, like and comment on their posts, share their music with your own followers if you like it. Think of social media like a community. You’re trying to build a community of and for DJs just like you.
Creating Your Value
Believe it or not, your value is something that you create. You need to make your place and prove that you’re valuable to your community and scene, whether it be local or global. What do you bring to the table that isn’t already there? That’s going to be a tough question to answer, so take your time.
Think of this as creating your brand. You want your brand to be distinct, active, and present. If you aren’t getting your own gigs, you should still attend other peoples’ gigs and make yourself a known presence in your local community of other DJs and musicians. Name recognition definitely goes a long way in a local scene.
If you live somewhere that doesn’t really have a scene, don’t worry. You can either travel, or… well, make one! Almost every decent sized town in the world has a night club. Many nightclubs will be more enticed by an offer that includes promotion. You can try to approach them with the offer of promoting a series of your own events. That way, you secure yourself a gig (or a series of them) and the club benefits from increased promotion and attendance. To get to bigger gigs, you have to start somewhere – even if it means working harder.
It’s going to be a hustle when you’re starting out and working your way up. That’s a reality that everybody in the industry has to face. But friends, connections, name recognition, and above all: hard work will get you everywhere. Keep that in mind as you move forward!
Breaking into the world of getting gigs is tough and daunting. It’s easy to feel crushed by the road that lays ahead when you’re just starting to think of gigs. But approaching people and being able to make connections is vital to your success in all stages of your career as a DJ. Aren’t you glad you spent all that time building your confidence?
Starting with gigs doesn’t equal $$$. Drop that idea. You’re going to start by working for exposure and experience nine times out of ten. Think house parties, local DJ events at local clubs on weeknights, and public community events like block parties and school dances.
Mixing in front of people is a major step and may throw a bone in your entire set. Truth be told, it’s a lot easier to perform well if there isn’t the added pressure of money hanging over your head. Think of these free events as an audition for the real deal. Relax, have a good time, and do the best you can. Then, in time, paying gigs will come your way. Just keep your head to the grind.
These events will help you become a better DJ. They may not feel like much because they’re unpaid, but they’re a part of your training towards becoming a professional DJ. Play different events and expand your skills and experience. You’ll learn to play for different crowds, different moods, and different environments. It’s about context. It’s vital to understand context in order to play a great set.
Free or paid, playing gigs is what makes you a DJ. You’re on the right path if you’re here and becoming professional is within your reach. Just keep doing what you’re doing, and the rest will come. Never stop improving, learning, accepting critique, and expanding your horizons. A good DJ plays killer sets, but a great DJ is one that never becomes complacent. Work, work, work!
If passion is what drives your DJing career, you won’t waver under the hard road ahead. But passion is what you have to hang on to, it’s what you have to let drive you. If it’s money or fame or getting girls, you’ll get distracted along the way. You won’t preform to the best of your ability. If you let passion drive you, things fall in line and make a lot more sense.
Above all that is said here, DJing should make you happy. If you get into something because of passion, the payoff should be that you feel happy and proud of what you’re doing. Some days will be harder than others, and you may have a string of bad days, but when your fingers touch your setup you should always have that feeling that this is what you’re here to do, this is your thing. You’re a DJ.
Follow the steps I’ve outlined for you in this book. Keep working, learning, talking to people. Talk to other DJs, read their stories, ask questions. Learn other setups, adopt new techniques, try out new genres and artists. Dig for new music, curate a killer library, keep an open mind. The world out there for DJs is limitless. You can always become better.
Before I wrap this up, I want to offer one more key piece of advice. Don’t compare yourself to others. There will always be somebody out there who is better than you no matter what you do, how long you do it, or how successful you get. There will always be somebody younger than you, more talented than you, smarter than you, better looking, and more educated. It’s easy to compare yourself to these people and feel down. But you can’t. You have to stop yourself and turn your inner dialogue into a positive. “Man, that guy is amazing. I wish I was like him. I suck compared to him.” Must turn into: “But I’m not him. And that’s okay. I’m just glad I can make people have fun, too.” The only person you should ever compare yourself to is the person you were yesterday.
Keep moving forward. Always.